The melting of the polar ice caps, the proposed Pebble Mine, clear-cut logging in the Tongass and Chugach National Forests, the salmon wars in Bristol Bay and Cook Inlet -- environmental issues are in the headlines every day in Alaska, but sometimes reading about them isn't enough to fully understand them.
That's what Seldovia born and raised Bretwood "Hig" Higman, 31, and Seattle native Erin McKittrick, 28, believed, which led to them trekking -- by human power alone -- more than 4,000 miles, from the Puget Sound to the Bering Sea, to learn about the issues from an in-person perspective.
"We started on June 9, 2007 and finished June 27, 2008. We had a detailed plan, but many of the details changed along the way," said Higman.
Starting in Seattle, the couple traveled north, spending most of the summer making their way through British Columbia's Great Bear Forest. After crossing the border into Alaska, they spent the fall in the Tongass National Forest and along the coast of the Gulf of Alaska.
Winter caught up to them in the Copper River Delta, and as the winter solstice neared they paddled into Prince William Sound. They picked up skis in Valdez, and headed inland through the Chugach Mountains. They passed through Anchorage, skied around the Knik Arm, then headed southwest toward the Alaska Peninsula.
They visited the proposed Chuitna Coal Mine site, skied through the pass to Lake Clark, and then skied down into the Bristol Bay watershed, through the site of the proposed Pebble Mine. Following the windy Alaska Peninsula through the return of spring, they hit Unimak Island, the first of the Aleutians, in June of 2008 -- one year after the journey's beginning.
"It's the furthest we could go on what we had. Unimak Island is 12 miles from the next island in the chain. It's the end of the range of caribou and bears, and we figured if they couldn't safely go farther, neither could we," Higman said.
Traveling so far, their equipment weight was carefully scrutinized. The two took a minimal amount of gear, which included the clothes on their back -- a breathable drysuit with a fleece underlayer for when it got cold, maps, a homemade backpack, a small tent, one sleeping bag which they shared, a knife and a handful of cooking utensils, a personal locator beacon, a camera to document the trip, and a packraft and paddle for water transportation.
"A lot of the trip, roughly a quarter of the distance we travelled, was paddling more than walking," Higman said.
For food, the two would resupply whenever they hit a town, village or even a small gas station in the middle of nowhere.
"Most of the time we would make do with whatever was there, and if we knew there wasn't going to be anything, we would mail stuff ahead," McKittrick said.
They trained, planned, and practiced for the trip by doing several-months-long excursions starting in 2000. However, the couple said traveling through such a dynamic and rugged environment, with so little gear, and forging a path through some areas that no one else had ever travelled before, still made for quite an uncertain trip at times.
"We had a fair amount of confidence in ourselves, but we never knew for sure we would make it. Each day brought new obstacles to overcome, and we never knew if something was going to prove too much, but adventure comes when you don't know for sure there's going to be a way," McKittrick said.
"It was an intense experience. Some parts were great and some parts sucked, but overall the whole experience was incredibly worthwhile," Higman said.
But the point of the trip was not solely adventure, it was to explore the environmental issues facing this region. This mission brought them from large cities to remote wildernesses, some pristine and some heavily disturbed by human development.
"There's something about walking through the land and seeing the issues first-hand, that makes them more clear to you," Higman said.
Travelling the way the couple did also put them in contact with many of the people closely involved with the issues, which provided them with further insight.
"There was a huge human component to the trip. We met a lot of people along the way and would stay in their homes, becoming a member of the family for a few days. It showed us an amazing cross-section of society and allowed us to see the issues in a very personal way," Higman said.
With the trip behind them, the couple said they are looking forward to sharing with others all they have learned. They maintain a Web site at www.groundtruthtrekking.org that documents the trip in great detail. It includes stories, a blog and numerous photos from the expedition. They also give slide presentations to school groups and the general public, and they have written a book called "Walking the Wild Coast" which is being published by Mountaineers Books and due out in 2009.
"Hopefully, it will inspire other people to get outdoors and learn more about resource issues," McKittrick said.
She added she would like to repeat the trip again someday, to see if future changes made in this region are for the better or the worse.
"I think we need to do it again in 25 years and see how its changed," she said.
Bretwood Higman and Erin McKittrick will be presenting their "Journey on the Wild Coast," as part of the Kenai Peninsula College Showcase Series on Tuesday at 7 p.m. For more information call 907-262-0346.
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Joseph Robertia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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